General William Tecumseh Sherman was right. War is hell.
Apocalypse Now is a guide to hell. Its journey through the jungle netherworld almost reminds you of Dante's Inferno—just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. The film stands in a long line of anti-war movies, exposing the brutality and nihilistic violence of combat. High ideals and patriotism don't seem to matter much in this particular version of the war in Vietnam.
Vietnam was an unpopular war back home. It wasn't clear to many Americans exactly why we were fighting, and it seemed increasingly unwinnable. Some commanders engaged in questionable operations. One officer, explaining why an entire community of civilians was wiped out, famously told a journalist that "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." That is so Apocalypse Now.
The movie's villain, Col. Kurtz, is the evil of war personified. With his severed heads and eerie ramblings, he incarnates all the chaos we've seen in war movies in one single, demented person. Willard's journey to confront Kurtz is also the audience's journey. We're headed up the same river, trying to discover what war is really all about.
Apocalypse Now depicts war as being fought for its own sake, not for any patriotic reasons. It is violence for the sake of violence.
Apocalypse Now argues that war can destroy even a person with high ideals.
Making Apocalypse Now drove everyone a little bonkers. The director contemplated suicide, the actors had meltdowns—the whole production at times seemed like one collective nervous breakdown. Psychiatrists in Hollywood probably made a pretty good living after filming ended and the cast returned home.
That sounds just about right for a film that explores madness and brings up some important question about the sanity of war in general. Colonel Kurtz has seriously lost it, embracing atrocities and unrestrained brutality as a necessary winning strategy. Kurtz is also fine with his followers worshiping him as a god. All those severed heads—crazy, right?
Not so fast, says Francis Ford Coppola. Isn't Kurtz's behavior just a logical extension of the brutality of the war he's fighting? His methods seem very deliberate and almost well thought out. Is the assassin Willard really all that different? And what about that manic photojournalist who babbles incoherently about Kurtz being such a great man? The film asks, couldn't any of us go off the deep end under the stress of war?
Hint: yes. People traumatized by war aren't likely to go around chopping off heads just to make a point, but war definitely isn't good for anyone's mental health.
Apocalypse Now shows that war itself is a form of collective madness.
The movie shows that madness comes from within. It's not that war creates madness—rather, madness creates war and war is just an expression of humanity's own perversity.
Colonel Kurtz exists in his own private world of warcraft where he wields complete power over his followers and his enemies. He sets himself up in an abandoned Cambodian temple, which adds to his godlike mystique with the indigenous people who do his bidding. Since we come into the middle of Kurtz's story, we're not sure exactly how he managed to do this, but we're guessing it has something to do with the severed heads and crucifixions all around his compound. Fear, random violence, mystique, drugs—probably all of these have given Kurtz his power. Reading T.S. Eliot to the Montagnards probably helped, too. It sure scared us in high school.
Just like in Heart of Darkness, the novel on which the film is based, Kurtz's power over the native population in Apocalypse Now is symbolic of the subjugation of an indigenous people by a more "civilized" power. Coppola seems to be saying that Kurtz's power over his Montagnards is nothing compared to what happened to the rest of the Vietnamese civilian population during the war. Kilgore's copters blaring "Ride of the Valkyries" while strafing beaches and villages—that's definitely a display of power no less crazy than Kurtz's severed heads. Ditto Willard and his special ops assassinations.
Funny thing is, none of the characters—except maybe Kilgore—feel very powerful. They all feel like their fates are shaped by forces beyond their control, whether it's the army brass or the law of the jungle or just the craziness of war. Nobody's really a winner in this power play.
Kurtz learns that brutal displays of power are necessary to inspire loyalty.
The people who command Kurtz are attacking him not because they disagree with his tactics, but simply because they want to be the ones running the show.
Despite his fondness for atrocities, Kurtz has a code he lives by, and the thing he seems to hate most is dishonesty. In Apocalypse Now, he thinks the generals who are supposed to be commanding him are hypocrites, since they claim that he's being unlawfully brutal while he's only doing what they want him to do: win the war.
In Kurtz's eyes, brutality is the truth—it's the only way out of the conflict. It drives him nuts (literally) that the same army that sends young men to kill won't let them paint obscenities on their airplanes because it's immoral. In his eyes, he's just being authentic and honest about what he's doing. The real deception is that the war's being fought for some noble cause.
Kurtz's brutality is just a form of honesty. His superior officers burn people to death with napalm, but they claim that what Kurtz is doing is wrong. They can't handle the truth about their own actions, so they need to turn Kurtz into a scapegoat.
Kurtz's pretense of his clear-eyed ideals is just as deceptive as his superiors'; he's just hooked on power.
Except for the Nung River, nothing's murkier in Apocalypse Now than morality. The film's shot through with moral ambiguity. We never quite know who the good guys and bad guys are. We've got murderous Viet Cong and the ebullient but equally murderous Kilgore. We see young American soldiers killed and then see a boatful of innocent Vietnamese peasants senselessly slaughtered by other young American soldiers.
One of the film's messages seems to be who are we to judge what people do in the heat of combat? Don't ideas about good and evil go out the window when you're in mortal danger? Doesn't war have its own special set of moral circumstances?
By giving us Colonel Kurtz, who's committed more than his share of atrocities, Coppola dares the viewers to make their own moral judgments about the war. Our guess? You'll walk out of the film more confused than when you went in.
The point of the movie is ideas of good and evil are irrelevant in a war.
The point of the movie is that we all have evil at our core; all we can do is try to control it.